salvēte, amīcī sodālēsque, and welcome back! Thank you so much for your comments, your emails, and (above all) continuing to read and to follow. I won’t blame you if you stop after today, though! 🙂 We’ll be looking at a hot-button issue in this post and the next.
Yesterday I said of Tres Columnae that
We’ll focus on comprehension, a measurable skill, rather than translation, a collection of many skills.
If you’re among the growing number of non-Classicist readers, you may wonder why that statement was necessary. If you’re a Classicist, though, you may wonder how a non-translation approach to Latin would even be possible. Today I hope to address both of these perspectives – and I hope I don’t end up antagonizing everyone! 🙂 If you are antagonized, though, please feel free to leave a vitriolic comment … I promise I won’t delete it. (Now, if it’s a spam comment, I make no such guarantees.)
First, for the non-Classicists in the audience, you may not realize how much Latin pedagogy relies on translation. This wasn’t always the case – from the fall of the Roman Empire until at least the 19th century, Latin was taught by a direct or immersion method. After all, the primary purpose of learning the language was to use it – in international communication, in the Church,in scholarly writing, or perhaps in reading some of the many centuries’ worth of Latin literature that continued to be written at that time.
As the first of these goals became slowly less relevant, however, and as German philologists like Wilamowitz pursued the fundamental principles of language – and came to view Ciceronian and Vergilian style as the highest, the best, and perhaps the only true form of the language – the grammar-translation approach emerged as the new, progressive way to teach Latin in this modern age. No longer was the emphasis on oral communication (since, after all, fewer people needed to communicate in Latin) or even on extensive reading (since the idea was to focus on the “best” Latin available). Now the goal was to “read very slowly” (as a dear friend of mine has put it), pausing to analyze every grammatical feature, with a view to discussing their effects. Full disclosure: I love philological discussions, and I encourage my face-to-face students to have them. But they’re not the only thing you can do with a Latin text! Apparently it was Sir Francis Bacon who said,
“Some books are to be tasted, others swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Of course, after 120 years or more, the “new, progressive” approach has become the “old-fashioned” approach, or even the One Right Way to Do Things. In 1810, no one would have imagined a purely grammar-translation approach to Latin; in 2010, many cannot imagine any other approach.
By contrast, most modern-language educators have long since abandoned the grammar-translation approach, usually on the grounds that it doesn’t work – or at least, it doesn’t work as well as the alternatives like
- the audio-lingual method;
- Krashen and Terrell’s Natural Approach;
- Total Physical Response;
- A proficiency-oriented approach;
- An immersion or near-immersion approach;
- TPRS; or
- some combination of these.
By “doesn’t work,” modern-language educators really mean, “doesn’t suit our goals.” After all, if you teach a modern foreign language, the purpose is usually to help students communicate with native speakers, using all four skills:
- reading, and
and all three discourse modes
- interpretive, and
It’s obvious that a grammar-translation approach isn’t an efficient way to meet these goals! After all, these goals are not the point of grammar-translation; they’re the point of the direct method that grammar-translation replaced! No wonder Classicists and modern-language teachers sometimes have trouble communicating with each other!
And that is why so many Classicists continue to defend grammar-translation as a reasonable way, or even the “best way,” to meet their more limited linguistic goals, such as:
- a primary focus on reading (since that’s the one way Latin learners can come in contact with native speakers), and writing to a lesser extent;
- a primary focus on the interpretive mode; and
- a strong secondary focus on literary analysis, which requires close attention to grammatical features.
Other Classicists, of course, argue that the “best way” to meet these goals is
- one of the alternatives listed above,
- the good old “direct method,” which is pretty close to immersion,
- the “reading method,” which is similar, but more influenced by linguistic advances in the 1960’s and 1970’s, or
- some combination.
Unfortunately, since each group is convinced it has the “best way,” or even the One Right Way, we tend to disagree with each other, sometimes vocally.
As in so many other areas, Tres Columnae aims for higher ground. Personally, I don’t disagree with the aims of the grammar-translation advocates, just as I don’t disagree with the musical choices – or the practice routines – of my friend the almost-professional pianist. But my children, who are fairly young piano students, aren’t yet ready to play what he plays, or to practice the way he practices! And I don’t think my beginning Latin students are ready for a graduate seminar about a Roman poet!
In other words, while a grammar-translation approach might be a perfectly reasonable way to process Latin once you’re a proficient reader, I don’t think it’s the best way for most prospective Tres Columnae participants (or most young language learners) to learn the language ab initio. That doesn’t mean they’ll never translate, or that they’ll never analyze grammatical features. In fact, Tres Columnae participants will do a lot of grammatical analysis – and a lot of language production – as well as a lot of reading, comprehension, literary analysis, and creative work in response to their readings. They may even translate from time to time. But just as my favorite-and-only children didn’t play MacDowell or even Rachmaninoff when they first sat at the piano, Tres Columnae participants won’t begin with grammatical analysis and translation.
quid respondētis, lectōrēs cārissimī? Have I lost you completely, with raging disagreement? Or can you envision a world where beginning students do something other than a pure grammar-translation approach … even if you’re not sure exactly what that would look like?
If not grammar-translation, though, what? That’s what we’ll consider in our next post. Tune in shortly for more.